London is a young city, but it isn’t always an easy one to be young in. Yes, we have enjoyed the benefits of a stronger economy and more employment than is true of many other regions and towns, and London is quite simply an amazing, diverse, creative place to be. But that’s not London’s only story.
This week, two new reports highlighted some of the challenges faced by young Londoners before, during and potentially after lockdown. The 2020 London Poverty Profile reinforced the point – too little understood outside the capital – that intense deprivation sits alongside massive wealth, with 28 per cent of Londoners living below the poverty line and a staggeringly high three-quarters of very low income London households including at least person who is in work.
High costs, especially of housing, not only undermine living standards but drive the secondary problem of bad housing, with housing insecurity and overcrowding being endemic. All this was already denying a generation of young people their capacity to achieve independence, the ability to find a home of their own. Some stayed crammed into the parental home – like Jamal, who, at 22, shares the second bedroom in his parents’ flat with two younger siblings. Others have literally spent years sofa-surfing. Ali stayed with his girlfriend until the relationship broke down, and only came off the street at age 19 after he was stabbed. Calum slept in the family car whenever his other options ran out. I’ve seen scenarios like this in any average week, and they were tough enough. And then came the virus.
The second report which shines a light into the lives of young Londoners looks at how Covid-19 and the lockdown have affected them in my own borough, Westminster. In other words, take an already harsh environment for a great many young people and ratchet up the pressure, sometimes to breaking point. The Young Westminster Foundation looked at how our young people are coping and identified a number of challenges which we, as a society, have to respond to both during and after these difficult weeks. For what is clear is that whilst many young people will come through this unscathed and many are doing brilliantly supporting their families and their communities, those who are not may experience lasting damage. It is absolutely not too early to start planning for how we get through not just lockdown but the world beyond it so that the damage is not too great.
The charity Young Minds had already identified that four out of five young people with existing issues with poor mental health were finding it harder to cope. The Foundation drew particular attention to the detrimental impact of spending all day on social media, with increased negativity and targeted harassment, including pressures around body image, and the potentially increased risk of sexual exploitation and harassment.
Young people with responsibilities at home can struggle with the lack of any relief from the pressure, with no quiet spaces for working and the stress of overcrowding. Sadly, some family situations were already hard enough to cope with, even abusive or violent, and the increased reporting of domestic violence is evidence of how lockdown aggravates existing tensions. The Foundation reports considerable anxiety about the inability to get closure following the death of loved ones. They worry about big extended families meaning increased risks, loved ones becoming mere numbers among so many others, and other types of illness, disability and causes of death (other than from Covid-19) seeming to be forgotten.
To all this can be added an understandable anxiety about a future which has never been so unpredictable, and which has transformed at a speed which few of us can process. Many young people are currently looking for jobs or are in their final year of school or university and need to adapt. Jobs and internships are cancelled. Plans have to be reshaped with no real ability to do the reshaping and few places to turn to for help. Many young people lack a safety net and cannot afford to miss out few months’ work. Some have no income at all. Despite some incredible work by our voluntary organisations, information and support is hard to find – not least because we are dealing with the consequences of a decade of cuts to children’s and youth services
To all these can be added some very specific risks to do with crime and policing. The disruption of county lines and the drug economy during the Covid crisis has the potential to lead to violent instability among young Londoners caught up in it. And, finally, the police are required to enforce the legal requirements of lockdown while rightly applying their own judgement to the specific circumstances. They are doing this well and with obvious public support. Yet, as the Foundation report highlights, the relationship between young people and the police can still sometimes be one of mistrust, whilst there may also be a general lack of awareness about social distancing which could lead young people to not follow advice or fully appreciate the consequences. These sources of potential tension are as likely to intensify as to diminish in the weeks and months to come.
After a decade in which the needs and interests of young people – especially the most disadvantaged – have been marginalised, the situation is now urgent and the costs of failure and delay, too high. We need responses tailored to local conditions, of course. What works in Westminster may not be what is required in Barnet or Croydon. But government must step up and support councils and voluntary organisations. The time is now.
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